Railway Square transforms an area of former rail workshops in Perth’s north-east into a new civic space that evokes a strong sense of history.
Located a thirty-minute drive (around nineteen kilometres) north-east of Perth’s CBD is the heritage suburb of Midland. It was originally established as a site of industry and its history provides a cultural connection that binds it to Fremantle, south-west of Perth, through the development of the rail and heavy infrastructure of the twentieth century. Running contiguous to the Helena River and sitting just beyond historic Guildford, Midland is the final major stop along the north-eastern corridor of Perth. It is seen as the “gateway” to the Swan Valley, Perth’s closest wine region, and to the surrounding hub of the Wheatbelt.
Attention to the revitalization and redevelopment of Midland has been ongoing for almost two decades. The economic and social potential of this area has attracted millions of dollars of investment by consecutive state governments, eager to inject the area with a health precinct, diverse housing and a new civic heart. The Midland Master Plan prepared by Hassell for the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA) in 2015 proposed a series of regenerative interventions that drew on the significant cultural and heritage elements of the area. Then Planning Minister Donna Faragher stated in a May 2016 media statement that:
The Government has a clear plan to restore and refresh Midland’s rich history of industry, innovation and strong sense of community. We are creating a dynamic urban village, a place where people can live, work and invest and an important commercial, residential and recreational activity centre for the eastern metropolitan region.
The development of Midland’s old Railway Square into a newly imagined space was part of this larger vision. While the grand ambitions presented through the Midland Master Plan have not as yet been realized, the rejuvenation of the 0.74 hectare public realm – Railway Square – was central to this redevelopment and was allocated almost $10 million in the 2016–17 state budget. With local design practice Place Laboratory brought on board, the brief was to revisit and re-envision the potential for the square – a task Place has taken to with immense attention to materiality, cultural and historical texture and the considered integration of contemporary uses with the rich and multi-layered history of the site.
The overall project design draws upon well-established industrial and cultural regeneration strategies. Regeneration of industrial infrastructure in urban design is often focused on the preservation of a particular element of heritage in which the unique identity of the place can be both commemorated and promoted in activating the development. The notion of the “urban village” has become shorthand for signalling attention to the local and particular attributes of a place. This is a strategy that has explicitly underpinned the Railway Square redevelopment. The Midland Railway Workshops, restored in 2015–16, culturally anchor the site, having been the main workshops for the Western Australian Government Railways for over eighty years during the twentieth century. As the MRA states on its website, “retaining its authentic, industrial feel, the new Workshops urban village will be home to a range of residential, commercial, health, education, entertainment and creative industry uses.
Conceptually grounded by the original (and still functional) railway line, the project’s redevelopment site encompasses the workshop spaces, shunting yards and associated buildings. It draws on key tenets of cultural heritage and place, including the repurposing of original materials, respecting the history of the site and merging historical elements with contemporary gestures in an integrated manner. Visual attention is directed to the central shunting yards, where the linearity of the formal elements of the rail lines creates a strong connection to the past through both a historical and a literal interaction. Place Laboratory has reinterpreted this as five adjacent lines – the Lost Line, the Social Line, the Water Line, the History Line and the Live Line – figurative and literal imaginings that both evoke the imagination and ground the site in its heritage. They recall, for instance, specific references to the social life of past workers and represent the end of that era of industrial use. The misting and lighting feature associated with the Water Line is a particularly innovative interpretation – Place Laboratory worked with local irrigation and water feature consultant Cadsult to bring this vision to life.
A series of more intimate gestures speak to the identity of the place. The Platform, adjacent to the lines, offers spaces to sit and linger, such as the twenty-metre-long Harvest Table. This rich cultural and physical landscape finds expression through the retaining (though moving) of ten mature plane trees otherwise earmarked for removal and finds reference in the hard infrastructure of the rail heritage. In particular, sightlines between the Peace Memorial and buildings were retained, despite presenting a design constraint, and have proven key in the growing Anzac Day services held there in the past few years. Other amenities include an object gallery incorporating outdoor public art by Stuart Green, innovative seating design and a thirty-metre shelter fully fitted out with electrical power, ready for events. The result is a beautifully realized space.
However, Place Laboratory’s original brief – the conversion of hard infrastructure to social infrastructure – holds at its heart a paradox and one not unique to this particular redevelopment. How does a place retain and celebrate heritage while speaking to the present-day potential users who must, for its ongoing success, adopt it as their own space?
As American designer James Corner argues, a key element that a design should provide for is its own temporality – a property that can be created, as academic Charles Waldheim suggests, through flexible and multi-layered spaces that facilitate myriad uses. Place Laboratory’s careful redesign certainly achieves this balance. Railway Square has the potential to be curated in multiple ways that would facilitate its genuine cultural regeneration.
A successful place is one that is part of its context’s everyday fabric. Social infrastructure needs to support a space, not just be embedded within it. Unfortunately the empty buildings and lots currently surrounding Railway Square render the potential of the development still unrealized, and the project currently risks being a tourist site (at best) with no emotional buy-in from local residents or the broader community. A proactive programming agenda would certainly activate it in the short term and with luck the investment in health and tertiary campuses will be a significant boost in stimulating this day-to-day use. This, along with the need for more commercial and residential activity to encourage a sense of ownership and stewardship of the square, would allow this culturally significant site to flourish in new, unexpected and unplanned-for ways.